Johnny Carson in 1970 publicity still

Johnny Carson in a 1970 publicity still

The other day I was doing a bibliographic instruction session with an English literature class when we digressed into a brief discussion about late night talk shows. I mentioned that when Jimmy Fallon became host of The Tonight Show he changed the subtitle to Starring Jimmy Fallon. The preposition is important. When Leno took over in 1992 he called it The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Conan O’Brien kept the “with” as well.

Without drawing much attention to it Leno and O’Brien were paying tribute to their predecessor. For three decades it was always The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. The class, most of whom were not born when Carson went off the air in May 1992, grasped my point. I am sure Jimmy Fallon will do a good job hosting Tonight and I don’t care what he calls his show. I just found the title change curious and was wondering how and why the decision was made to go back to the show name as it was from 1962-1992.

Carson was on my mind because I had just finished Henry Bushkin’s memoir of his years as the talk show host’s attorney, tennis partner, and all-around fixer. Bushkin’s story, good as it is, does not change the basic outline of the Carson story. Everyone knew he was a mean drunk, cold with his three sons & four wives, and increasingly demanding and petty as the years went by. When Carson died after a few months illness he was virtually alone. There was no funeral.

Still the details make for startling reading. It is all the more jarring because the Bombastic Bushkin–whom Carson fired after nearly twenty years service–seems to have no ax to grind.  All memoirs, especially tell all memoirs, are self-servicing but Bushkin’s story seemed for the most part a credible read.

What was so amazing was the way he could turn it off and on when the studio light went on and curtain parted. My theory about people like Carson is that they have only a finite amount of energy with which to use their talents. Sinatra was much the same way. On stage with a microphone he was fine as long as he stuck to the songs and spared the audience his cringe inducing monologues. Both men could also be charming and generous, albeit on their own terms. Always though, one never knew when the hammer might fall. And when it did . . .

Forced to choose between family and career many of the most talented individuals choose the latter. It is part of their greatness. We think it is easy because they make it look so.

The reason Carson will always be my favorite of the late night hosts was the way he conducted the show irony free. One of the wort trends in our culture today is the unrelenting irony and the arch “knowingness” that many seem to employ. Sincerity and genuine curiosity seem to have gotten lost. It is one of the worst aspects of our contemporary culture.